Category Archives: close friends

The science of friendship

Flickr/JimBoudThere is an interesting article by Robin Dunbar in The New Scientist: Dunbar’s Number was named after Robin, from his theorizing that humans only had the brain capacity to manage roughly 150 relationships, although depending on gender, social skills and personality, this number could vary from 100-250.  Dunbar observes that communication often breaks down when one exceeds 150 individuals (as evidenced in the Crimean War by the Charge of the Light Brigade) and the modern military and businesses only exceed these limits through strict hierarchies.

Dunbar theorizes that language, laughter and communal music-making evolved as a way to stay connected to a larger group of individuals than possible through physical acts like grooming. Dunbar: “[N]ot only can we speak to many people at the same time, we can also exchange information about the state of our networks in a way that other primates cannot. Gossip, I have argued, is a very human form of grooming.”  Christakis and Fowler (in the excellent book Connected) note that “…language is a less yucky and more efficient way to get to know our peers since we can talk to several friends at once but only groom them one at a time.  In fact, in a conversation with a small group, we can assess the behavior, health, aggressiveness, and altruism of several individuals simultaneously.  Plus, we can talk to someone else while engaged in another activity, like foraging for food in a refrigerator.”  Christakis and Fowler note how radical the idea is that language evolved not primarily as a way to exchange information but to maintain group cohesion.   “Dunbar estimates that language would have to be 2.8 times more efficient than grooming in order to sustain the [average] group size seen in humans” (one speaker per 2.8 listeners).

While language may have originally evolved, as per Dunbar, to maintain a slightly larger group size, once developed it was in principle possible to use language to maintain social relations on a tribal or national level.

A few other excerpts from Dunbar’s article:

Group living needn’t tax your intelligence too much. In a loose herd, cues such as body size or aggressiveness may be enough to judge whether you should challenge or steer clear of another individual. In bonded networks, however, you need to know each member’s personal characteristics and those of the friends and relations that might come to their aid. Keeping track of the ever-changing web of social relationships requires considerable mental computing power.

As a reflection of this, there is a correlation between the size of a species’ brain– in particular its neocortex– and the typical size of its social groups. In other words, brain size seems to place a limit on the number of relationships an individual can have. This link between group size and brain size is found in primates and perhaps a handful of other mammals that form bonded societies such as dolphins, dogs, horses and elephants. In all other mammals and birds, unusually large brains are found only in species that live in pair-bonded (monogamous) social groups.

As group size increases so too does the number of relationships that need servicing. Social effort is not spread evenly. Individuals put most effort into their closest relationships to ensure that these friends will help out when they need them. At the same time they maintain the coherence of the group. As a result, social networks resemble a nested hierarchy with two or three best friends linked into larger groupings of more casual friends, and weaker relationships bonding the entire group. This hierarchy typically has a scaling ratio of three– each layer of decreasing intimacy is three times larger than the one before it….

HUMAN SOCIAL NETWORKS

Our social networks can have dramatic effects on our lives. Your chances of becoming obese, giving up smoking, being happy or depressed, or getting divorced are all influenced by how many of your close friends do these things. A good social network could even help you live longer since laughing with friends triggers the release of endorphins, which seem to “tune” the immune system, making you more resilient to disease. So what factors influence the form and function that our social networks take.

In traditional societies, everyone in the community is related to everyone else, either as biological relatives or in-laws. In post-industrial societies this is no longer true– we live among strangers, some of whom become friends. As a result, our social circles really consist of two separate networks– family and friends– with roughly half drawn from each group.

Because the pull of kinship is so strong, we give priority to family, choosing to include them in our networks above unrelated individuals. Indeed, people who come from large extended families actually have fewer friends. One reason we favour kin is that they are much more likely to come to our aid when we need help than unrelated individuals, even if these are very good friends.

Family and friend relationships differ in other important ways, too. One is that friendships are very prone to decay if untended. Failure to see a friend for six months or so leaves us feeling less emotionally attached to them, causing them to drop down through the layers of our network hierarchy. Family relationships, by contrast, are incredibly resilient to neglect. As a result, the family half of our network remains constant throughout most of our lives whereas the friendship component undergoes considerable change over time, with up to 20 per cent turnover every few years.

More than 60 per cent of our social time is devoted to our five closest friends, with decreasing amounts given over to those in the layers beyond, until at the edge of the 150 layer are people we perhaps see once a year or at weddings and funerals. Nevertheless, the outer reaches of our social networks have a positive role to play. The sociologist Mark Granovetter at Stanford University in California has argued that these weak links in our social networks are especially useful in the modern world. It is through this widespread network of contacts that we find out about job vacancies and other economic or social opportunities. More importantly, perhaps, 70 per cent of us meet our romantic partners through these contacts.

Read “Getting Connected” by Robin Dunbar (New Scientist, 4/3/12)

Best friends may provide the most new and valuable info

Flickr photo of BFF from nokapixel

Mark Granovetter in a famous 1973 article “The Strength of Weak Ties” observed that it is our weaker social ties that are most likely to provide us access to information we don’t already know about: job leads, cross-fertilizing information that we can use to great advantage in our jobs, new opportunities, etc.

A recent paper by Sinan Aral and Marshall Van Alstyne says that Granovetter neglected to include frequency of contact.  Yes, our weak ties are more likely per contact to provide us new information, but we contact our strong ties so much more often that a majority of novel information actually comes through those strong and demographically similar friends.

Aral and Van Alstyne analyzed nearly a year of e-mail from an executive recruiting firm (heavily dependent on e-mail for communication and where novel information was critical in finding the right candidates) and found that those with a tighter group of friends (which they define via less network diversity) actually got a higher ratio of new information per unit of time and produced higher revenue for the firm.  As the authors hypothesized, recruiters with more diverse networks suffered a big drop in the volume of communication (what they call “channel bandwidth”).  “Interestingly however, reductions in channel bandwidth associated with greater network diversity do not seem to be driven solely by time and effort costs of network maintenance, but also by the nature of the relationships in sparse networks.” Van Alstyne concludes:  “a smaller number of high-bandwidth relationships can be good for you.”

So no need to jettison your best friends for now…

Read “Buddy System” (WIRED May 2011, by Clive Thompson)

See Sinan Aral and Marshall Van Alstyne, “Networks, Information & Brokerage: The Diversity-Bandwidth Tradeoff” (2010)

Praying alone is no fun; having friends at church makes you happier

Flickr photo by Shavar Ross

[Also cross-posted on the American Grace Blog]
American Grace research team members Chaeyoon Lim and Robert Putnam have an article in the prestigious American Sociological Review demonstrating that religion actually makes you happier and it works through having close friends at church.

“Our study offers compelling evidence that it is the social aspects of religion rather than theology or spirituality that leads to life satisfaction,” said Chaeyoon Lim, assistant professor of sociology at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison, who led the study. “Listening to sermons or praying is not enough.  In particular, we find that friendships built in religious congregations are the secret ingredient that makes people happier.”

A host of studies have found a correlation between happiness and religiosity, but they suffered from the vulnerabilities of any single shot survey. Was religiosity truly causing happiness, was happiness causing greater religiosity, or was some third factor responsible (say an extroverted gene that made people both happier and more likely to go to “church”)? With the large nationally representative Faith Matters surveys, which interviewed the same Americans twice in a 6-9 month period, Lim and Putnam demonstrate that increased church attendance over that 6-9 month period increases life satisfaction. Surprisingly, they find that more overtly religious factors like theology (e.g., belief about the type of God or the afterlife or what religion you belong to) and private religious practices (e.g., experiencing God’s presence in your life or saying Grace or frequency of prayer) did not predict greater life satisfaction.

So what explained the power of religious attendance? Lim and Putnam found that it was having close friends in one’s house of worship. While friends in general cause people to have greater life satisfaction, friends at church serve as “super-charged” friends, with an even stronger impact on life satisfaction than secular friends.

It’s not clear exactly why close friends at church have such strong power. Lim and Putnam speculate that these church friends anchor “a strong sense of belonging in these religious communities” and provide parishioners with “morally-infused social support. In other words, if one seeks life satisfaction, it is neither faith nor communities alone that are important, but communities of faith. For life satisfaction, praying together seems better than either bowling together or praying alone. These findings suggest that religious leaders should invest more of their time, treasure and talent in deepening the social dimensions of congregational life, such as through small support or worship groups, potlucks and choirs. This is likely to pay dividends to their congregants in making them happier and also benefit the religious leaders by making their congregants more likely to stay active religious members.”

Specifically, they find that those who attend church sporadically but nonetheless have close friends at church, likely working through religious spouses, are quite high in life satisfaction whereas those who attend church regularly but don’t have church friends are not. “According to the study, 33 percent of people who attend religious services every week and have three to five close friends in their congregation report that they are ‘extremely satisfied’ with their lives” (a 10 on the 1 to 10 question scale). “In comparison, only 19 percent of people who attend religious services weekly, but who have no close friends in their congregation report that they are extremely satisfied. On the other hand, 23 percent of people who attend religious services only several times a year, but who have three to five close friends in their congregation are extremely satisfied with their lives. Finally, 19 percent of people who never attend religious services, and therefore have no friends from congregation, say they are extremely satisfied with their lives.”

Note: Putnam and Lim control for the all the natural demographic correlates that might be causing spurious findings.

The Faith Matters findings apply to the three main Christian traditions (Mainline Protestant, Evangelical Protestant, and Catholic). “We also find similar patterns among Jews and Mormons, even with a much smaller sample size,” said Lim, who noted that there were not enough Muslims or Buddhists in the data set to test the model for those groups.

It’s possible that there are other real-world secular examples of groups where in-group friendships provide the same level of ‘morally-infused” social support: e.g., 12-step programs, or zealous environmental activist networks, or uncorrupted unions, or MADD. Since these findings are relatively new, we haven’t firmly tested to find secular equivalents of these morally-infused networks although it is clear that there is nothing in the US that has anything like the frequency of friends of church, since so many more Americans are in the pews on a Sunday than participating weekly in an environmental group or a 12-step program. The Prime Minister of the UK, David Cameron has made clear to us in conversations, given much lower levels of religiosity in that country, that he is actively interested in finding out if there are secular takeaways from these life satisfaction findings that could be applied in the UK without exhorting more Brits to attend and make friends at church; Cameron’s interest is also sparked by his recent decision to actively measure life satisfaction in the UK as a key indicator of how well government is doing.

We’ll also be doing some further testing in additional surveying we are doing to try to understand more about what makes “close friends at church” so powerful. We welcome your thoughts…

CNN notes: “it is worth examining in the future why this study did not find the same link between happiness and spirituality that others did, the authors say. This may have to do with how different aspects of religion are measured. For example, those who reported that they ‘feel God’s love’ seemed to have more life satisfaction than those who did not, but this did not apply for similar questions about belief in God. Also, it is impossible to draw conclusions about whether ‘feeling God’s love’ causes happiness or vice versa. Could other networks of people have the same effect on happiness? The authors say that if this is possible, it’s hard to think of a non-religious context with a similar strength of identity, intensity of participation in ritual, and great scale and scope of the people in it.”

Cite: “Religion, Social Networks, and Life Satisfaction,” American Sociological Review, 75(6), December 2010.

Beyond CNN, see news stories in USA TodayNational Post, Discovery, Live Science, Science News, TIMES of India, Montreal Gazette, and Daily Mail.

High turnover of close friends

(Flickr photo by psoup216)

(Flickr photo by psoup216)

An interesting Dutch study by Gerald Mollenhorst found that just over half of close friends turn over every 7 years. And only 30% of friends were discussion partners and practical helpers some seven years later.

Whether this applies to American friends is up for grabs, although one aspect of the Dutch study clearly doesn’t transfer across the Ocean.  Mollenhorst found that the size of close friendship networks remained constant over the last 7 years despite the volatility in the composition of these networks.  In the U.S., the best careful study of close friends-see below-  found that close friendship networks have collapsed between 1985 and 2004, although there has been no careful work on this subject of trends since 2000.  [To be clear, in the U.S., unlike in the Netherlands, the study was not longitudinal;  in other words, researchers were not tracking the same individuals over these 16 years, but nevertheless average close friendship networks were collapsing over this period.]

Mollenhorst was also interested in how the social context (whether you met someone through school, work, neighborhood, etc.) affected friendships.  He found, surprisingly, that the social context did not affect how similar friends, partners and  acquaintances were to each other.  In this sense, it was a somewhat deterministic view of the importance of social context on our friendship networks.

The survey interviewed 1007 people ages 18-65 and then reinterviewed 604 of these individuals 7 years later.

The relevant U.S. study on the collapse of our close friendships is as follows:  Two prominent sociologists, Lynn Smith-Lovin and Miller McPherson, and former critics of Bowling Alone found confirming evidence of social isolation in the General Social Survey data. From 1985-2004, the percentage of Americans lacking anyone to discuss important matters with has nearly tripled. Almost half the U.S. population now has either no one or only one confidante with whom to discuss important matters. See June 23, 2006 stories in Boston Globe, Washington Post, and an essay in TIME magazine by Robert D. Putnam.

For article on the Mollenhorst Dutch study, see “Half of Your Friends Lost In Seven Years” (Science Daily)

Gerald Mollenhorst, Utrecht University page.

Umbrella Project: “Where Friends are Made: Context, Contact and Consequences (Beate Volker)